COLUMBIA — George Smith sits at a table minutes after leaving Ragtag Cinema and reaches into a paper bag in the next seat. He pulls out a frame. Inside are three medals, a competition bib and a photo of him and three of his grandchildren. They are all items from his first Missouri State Senior Games in 1994.
By his own admission, Smith entered the '94 Games four years after he had become a couch potato. He had stopped playing in his adult basketball league. He was no longer officiating sports, a job that had kept him active for years. One day, four years into being a couch potato, he walked down the driveway to pick up the mail and was out of breath coming back up the hill to his home.
That year, he signed up for the competition for the first time. After perusing the events list, he decided to register in the shot put and discus. They seemed the easiest.
With little to no training, Smith walked away with a bronze medal in both events. He earned a third medal, silver, in the long jump.
"That started my competitive blood going," Smith said.
He would compete in the games for another 16 years, winning a slew of gold medals along the way.
This summer, after three summers off, he will try to get it pumping again. He will try to compete in the Show Me Games in July because he started too late for this weekend's Senior Games.
Smith was at Uprise Bakery on Tuesday for Ragtag Cinema's showing of "Age of Champions," a documentary about a group of individuals competing at the 2009 National Senior Games. The show was put on by the MU Interdisciplinary Center on Aging, in advance of the Missouri State Senior Games that begin Thursday.
The invitation to the event inspired Smith to sign up for the Show-Me State Games in July, a competition open to all ages (not just seniors). It's a small victory for the Interdisciplinary Center, which promotes the idea of older adults remaining active. But the organization's director, Steven Zweig, says not every senior is cut out for an Olympic-style competition.
"This is a story about exceptional older people," Zweig said about the film, which focused on a 100-year-old competitive tennis player, among others. "But we need to focus on everyone, especially older people, being active."
Zweig provided a list of benefits of staying active: It lowers the risk of heart disease, reduces cholesterol and can potentially deter cognitive dysfunction and arthritis and even reduce the risk of some cancers.
Lorraine Phillips, an associate professor in the Sinclair School of Nursing at MU, said 150 minutes of moderate physical activity per week can help prevent the natural loss of muscle mass. As the body gets older, muscles begin to lose mass. Between the ages of 25 and 80, adults can lose up to 50 percent of their muscle mass, with much of it replaced by fat. Regular physical activity, which rebuilds muscle fibers and enlarges existing muscle fibers, can help stop the loss of muscle.
"We recommend physical activity for almost all of our patients," said Karli Urban, an assistant professor of clinical family and community medicine at MU. "It has as many benefits, if not more, for older adults than for the regular population.”
All three agree that it doesn’t matter if you're 65 or 95: It's never too late to start exercising.
It's an ideal that resonates with the Missouri State Senior Games. The organization's purpose, laid out on its website, is to "promote and create an interest in lifetime sports, recreation and physical exercise as a means of enhancing one's quality of life."
Promoting and creating an interest in an active lifestyle for people over the age of 50 might sound difficult at first glance, but a desire to stay active is what inspired Smith to compete in the games in 1994 and is inspiring him to compete again in 2014.
In 2010, Smith stopped competing in the games after a hip surgery and a heart attack. He said he's "cured" now, but still hasn't returned to competition.
"The only thing slowing me down," he said, "is up here."
He points to his forehead with both hands. The problem isn't in his hips, nor is it in his formerly misfiring heart — it's in his head. The internal motivation isn't there like it used to be.
Did watching a film about the successes of seniors competing at the National Games bring some of that competitive spirit back?
"It was a little bit discouraging," Smith said with a laugh. "Here I am at 76, and these people are in their 80s and 90s."
"I imagine that some people will probably be inspired, some will be discouraged (by the film)," Zweig said.
He said that society perpetuates two images of seniors: one is of a debilitated, confused person, one that is almost easy to make fun of. The other is of an amazingly successful person uninhibited by age. Of course, Zweig said, the vast majority of older people fall somewhere in the middle.
It probably would be fair to put Smith in the middle group.
"I'm 76 years old," Smith said, leaning back in his chair. "I'm still in pretty good shape for 76."
It’s easy to believe him. He speaks confidently with a potent sense of humor. He laughs frequently. His grip is strong and, for a man who is 6 foot 3 inches, still quite trim.
But with all that going for him, he’s not quite in that second group that Zweig describes. A passerby would never know. The only way you would is if you knew his story — of someone still looking for that spark, of the motivation to compete again. That little missing piece is the only thing that separates him from the people in "Age of Champions."
"I don't think it would take that much to get back," he said. To get back to where he was before the hip surgery, before the heart attack, back when the competitive blood still flowed.
"If I do well in July, it might be the motivation I needed."
Supervising editor is Greg Bowers.